Wrapped in Sound: Surround Speaker Systems Make Great Leaps Forward

The very first pancake was made when a crafty cook combined the appropriate quantities of flour, eggs, sugar, milk and some kind of leavening ingredient. Not brain surgery. But the operative words here are “appropriate quantities.” The proto-flapjack was likely either a paper-thin thing made from a far too runny batter or a nasty puck far too thick to ever bake properly on an open griddle. A bit of fiddling with the ingredients by this prehistoric IHOP-er, and the formula was carved in stone–maybe literally.

And though any modern cook knows that whipping up the world’s best pancakes from scratch takes mere minutes in the kitchen, most of us like to take the easy way out and turn to a box of premixed concoctions. The cakes may not be quite as light, fluffy and tender as the scratch-made batch, but the box stuff can be pretty darn good. There is something to be said for convenience.

Today’s pre-packaged home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) might be the Bisquick of component audio. So why not let trained professionals determine those all-important “appropriate quantities” of loudspeaker components–tweeter, woofer, center, rear and so on? Let ’em stir up an instant surround system, pour it out of the box into your living room and, quicker than you can say “Log Cabin,” you have a properly matched audio system ready to crank up, say, that Miles Electric DVD or one of Telarc’s many recent surround-sound jazz discs. Not brain surgery. But does the system sound like it came from, well, out of a box?

A few years ago I would not have advised anyone to consider the then-available HTIBs, most of which were lowest-common-denominator systems not really capable of producing quality audio for films, much less music. It was far better to assemble a system built around really good front speakers, something to suit your individual taste and budget. Actually, that is still the best route to follow for optimum performance. But there is an increasingly large selection of surprisingly good prepackaged systems that belie their modest price tag and appearance.

As speaker technology has improved over the years, designers have discovered ways of extracting some downright amazing sound from very small enclosures. The result can be outstanding, even from quite diminutive satellite speakers as small as a few inches wide, typically fashioned from aluminum or steel. Subwoofers have also made tremendous strides in tunefulness and accuracy as their internal digital amps and drivers become more potent, more musical.

When shopping for surround speakers, make sure to consider their placement; they often sound best when mounted on stands developed to position them at the perfect listening height, and many are designed to be hung directly on the wall. Wire is often included in the package and is usually only adequate. It might be worth spending a few extra dollars for a speaker-cable upgrade; most dealers will offer decent alternatives for as low as a buck or so per foot, and that would be money well spent.

One logical HTIB solution to consider is the Paradigm Cinema 110 CT ($799/optional stands $119/pair; paradigm.com). This nifty little system includes three slim three-driver, two-way units for front and center as well as two four-driver dipole surrounds (dipole means they radiate in two directions, great for rear/surrounds that are primarily used for ambience, not full-range signals anyway). It also includes the Cinema 110 active subwoofer, complete with its own 150-watt amp. This is an ideal system for folks with flat-panel displays since the speakers are long and slender, fitting perfectly with the proportions of the flat screen, and they can be easily wall-mounted.

Paradigm is one of those companies that all critics praise consistently for producing a line of products known for high performance and value. So it should be no surprise that the Cinema 110 CT system is a dandy–and a slam-dunk for the money. No, it doesn’t match the sonics of my mega-buck dedicated music system, but for the money you certainly would be hard pressed to do better. On its own, the sound is fantastic: nothing added to or subtracted from the music to distract from the performance, no matter how dynamic, no matter how quiet. It just cranks it out, like it’s supposed to be.

Once the easy setup was over (I auditioned the products at hand with the Arcam AVR300 receiver discussed in the sidebar at right), I quickly cued up the Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue DVD, which features Miles, along with his then-new-ish electric band including Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Gary Bartz, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Airto Moreira. The performers were solidly positioned across the stage depicted on screen, and every nuance of each instrument was present and accounted for, even the slight, delicate tinkling of Moreira’s pandeiro or tambourine. I’ve never been a festival fan, but the Paradigm system let me pretend I was actually at this historic performance–the sound was that convincing. (Of course, the added visuals helped.)

Next I tried an old live Paul Simon show from 1980 in which he was backed up by a crack band featuring Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Steve Gadd and Tony Levin. The sound of this DVD is excellent, and the Paradigm provided a spot-on conveyance of this really white-hot group. As a Gadd fan, I was particularly attentive to the way the system handled his robust, lusty drumming. Every thwack was presented as if live, with plenty of room on top for that oh-so subtle bit of decay and room ambience, details that help reinforce the illusion of reality in any recording.

I also played a variety of jazz sides, both instrumental and vocal and found the resulting sound to be quite satisfying on all counts. This is a very musical system in addition to adding some pretty cool audio to favorite movies and videos.

When I first heard the Triangle Galaxy 5.1 system ($1695/stands optional at $199/pair; www.triangle-fr.com) at the Consumer Electronics Show a year or so ago, I thought I was listening to the $5,000-plus speaker sitting next to it.

The Galaxy, available in silver, white or black, consists of five satellite speakers–two-ways in cast aluminum housings–and the impressive Triangle Meteor 0.1 active subwoofer, which packs a 100-watt amp inside its handsome yet compact enclosure. The construction of all components is well beyond what this price normally dictates; the satellites themselves are solid and hefty, nothing lightweight about them, eliciting great confidence right out of the box. The optional stands make setup a no-brainer, and the entire system can be assembled in less than an hour. Sonic Bisquick, indeed!

The sound, of course, is phenomenal, just as I remembered. It is hard to believe that such authority and size of image can emanate from such small units, but Triangle makes it happen. No surprise, really: Triangle products always create a captivating sonic experience.

On the justifiably hyped new CD At Carnegie Hall by the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, the Triangles created a believable illusion of being in the actual hall during this monumental show. The Arcam receiver synthesized some quite credible room acoustics, and the Triangle speakers reproduced the effect perfectly. First of all, this recording is spectacular for the time, 1957, and the music is already legendary–it’s a disc not to miss. Through this system the piano was solid, full and revealing of Monk’s trademark percussive attack.

Chicago Blues Reunion is a compelling CD/DVD package documenting a very cool meeting of some of the central figures of the mid-’60s Chicago blues scene, including Harvey Mandel, Tracy Nelson, Corky Siegel and Sam Lay. For those not aware, during this hyperactive period for the blues there were two monumental female singers: Janis Joplin had the mystique, but Tracy Nelson really had the voice–and she’s still alive and kicking. Nelson’s radioactive vocal instrument is portrayed in all its glory in this terrific performance, and the Triangle/Arcam system delivered it with all its weight, extension and power.

Revisiting Caetano Veloso’s artful, late-’90s Prenda Minha DVD, all the punch and slam of the ever-present percussion section came through with aplomb, but equally so all the subtleties of the nylon-string guitars, cello and other, more difficult to delineate instruments–all are portrayed with absolute accuracy, making each voice easy to follow through this often thickly textured, always complex music.

I’ve recommended Triangle before. After my trip through this spectacular Galaxy, I can continue to do so wholeheartedly.